By Barrett Seaman
Nita Lowey, Congresswoman for New York’s 17th District, convened a roundtable of a dozen leaders representing Jewish Community Centers and related groups from Westchester and Rockland Counties at the JCC on the Hudson, one of the hundreds of Jewish centers nationwide that have received bomb threats since the beginning of the year.
Less than a day later, two more New York State JCCs received threats.
The JCC on Hudson bomb scare, which occurred a week earlier when an unidentified caller, using a disguised voice, called at 9:10am warning of an explosive device on the premises, was one almost identical to one made at the mid-Westchester JCC in Scarsdale. A St. Louis man was subsequently arrested in connection with eight such threats, but authorities do not know whether he was acting alone or part of a larger group responsible for threats across the country. To date, there has been no evidence of actual explosives on any of the premises.
“I think it’s time for action,” said Lowey in introductory remarks. “I can’t believe this is happening here in the United States of America.” She asked the gathered representatives to share their experiences and their ideas on how to combat the growing anti-Semitic acts and language.
Several of the participants noted that they had applied for grants offered by the Department of Homeland Security to bolster protection but had been turned down. Only one grant request in the area, from Ossining, has so far been successful. Susan Tolchin, a board member of JCC on the Hudson told Lowey: “We need guidance in how to beef up our grant applications.” The Congresswoman said she was attempting to make more grant money available and added that she would try to get the officials who review grant applications to come to the area.
David Kirtschel, CEO of the JCC of Rockland County, noted that his as well as other JCCs were close to the New York Thruway, the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Hudson River, making them highly vulnerable to attack. “How long will it be,” asked Lisa Roberts, president-elect of the Westchester Jewish Council, “before someone really sets off a bomb?”
Several participants noted that the threats alone have had an impact on usage of the centers. Paul Adler, past president of the Rockland JCC, reported: “We have people pulling their children out of programs, fearing for their safety. As a result centers are losing vital sources of revenue. ”These deranged callers are exacting a price,” said Adler.
Several observed that JCC programs and facilities are open to anyone, suggesting that the threat to their facilities reaches a wider audience. “We have non-Jews using our programs,” said Elizabeth Lampert, Security Co-Chair, Westchester Jewish Council, “but why should we have to say that in order to be recognized?”
All the participants stressed that the recent spate of bomb threats against Jewish centers is only part of a larger problem: a general sense of anxiety created by Trump administration policies on immigration and refugees. Paul Adler said that the centers in Rockland County that offer WIC (Women, Infants and Children) food assistance are mostly empty of late because the largely Hispanic population that utilizes these services is afraid their members will be swept up by ICE agents if they go there. Adler also observed that area Islamic community centers face almost identical threats as the JCCs.
Said Gary Siepser, CEO of the Jewish Foundation and Federation of Rockland County: “We have a leadership vacuum today. If not the President, then other leaders need to step up.”
Also present at the meeting was Tarrytown Mayor Drew Fixell as well as aides to Congressman Elliot Engel and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. A follow-up session is scheduled for the evening of March 16.
Related story: Bomb Threat Called into JCC on Hudson in Tarrytown